Eric Ormsby

Making a Prophet

The First Muslim: The Story of Muhammad


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For a historical personage about whom we seem to know even the homeliest and most mundane details – his espousal of the toothpick for good dental hygiene or his passionate love of cats – the Prophet Muhammad remains an oddly elusive figure. Gone are the confident days of the late 19th century when Ernest Renan could state that of all the founders of religions, Muhammad alone ‘stood in the full light of history’. Renan’s assumption was understandable. The sheer quantity of documentation in Arabic, including not only the Koran itself but the sira, the eighth- and ninth-century ‘biographies’ of the Prophet, and the voluminous canonical collections of the hadith, those sacred traditions reporting his words and deeds, is immense. These sources are notable not only for the abundance of information they contain but also for their vivid specificity: they positively swarm with detail.

True, the Koran, the earliest such document and the only one whose authenticity is incontestable, is short on such details, but the scant information it does contain about Muhammad is therefore all the more precious. By contrast, in the hadith we find all manner of telling titbits: for example, that Muhammad considered three things ‘most lovable in this world of yours’, namely, ‘perfume and women and prayer’, though prayer in particular was ‘the apple of his eye’. This neatly captures both his ascetic bent (‘this world of yours’) and his down-to-earth humanity; after all, he claimed to be no more than an ‘emissary of God’, in all other respects he was a ‘man like you’. He could be relentless but he could also be tender: when he found a cat sleeping on his cloak, a famously patched and ragged cloak at that, he carefully slit the cloak apart with his sword rather than disturb the presumptuous feline. And he loved to laugh, we are told, to the extent that when he did laugh – admittedly, not often – he did so ‘until his back teeth showed’. These are charming reports; they make a figure remote in time and place startlingly present and credible. But are they true?

In The First Muslim, her latest foray into early Islamic history for a popular readership, journalist Lesley Hazleton accepts the traditional Muslim account of Muhammad’s life and mission pretty much as it stands in the sources. She relies heavily, indeed almost exclusively, on the standard English translation of the classical biography by the ninth-century Egyptian author Ibn Hisham (whose sira incorporates and completes an earlier eighth-century account), as well as on the monumental work of the great tenth-century historian and Koran commentator al-Tabari. I note these dates not out of pedantry but to indicate a glaring problem with these sources: the earliest was composed a century after the Prophet’s death in 632 and the latest almost three hundred years after that (al-Tabari died in 923). Even allowing for the fabled tenacity of memory in traditional Muslim culture, not to mention the exemplary critical rigour of both Ibn Hisham and al-Tabari, it seems improbable that either of these narratives could be considered factually accurate in all or even most of their details. Occasionally Hazleton acknowledges this, as when she notes of one episode that ‘all of this is on the side of too good to be true’, but in general she is content to reproduce the traditional and well-hallowed sequence of events.

Though she expresses the wish early on to avoid what she aptly terms the ‘deadening pall of circumspection’, she is nothing if not circumspect from start to finish. Circumspection is warranted, of course. This is a volatile topic. For however sceptically scholars – and especially Western scholars such as the great Hungarian Orientalist Ignác Goldziher, who over a century ago cast serious doubt on the historical authenticity of virtually all the hadith literature – may regard the traditional sources, they are sacrosanct to most Muslims. They form the basis of prescribed comportment in all areas of life; they are the foundation of the sunna, the model behaviour enjoined on believers in imitation of the Prophet, seen as the uswa, the ultimate exemplar. Whatever is ‘not sunna’ is reprehensible, if not proscribed. But occasionally, and to her credit, even Hazleton’s circumspection gets ruffled. On the ghastly massacre of the last Jewish tribe of Medina, when Muhammad ordered the beheading of hundreds of men in front of a purpose-dug ditch and the enslavement of their wives and children, all on trumped-up charges, Hazleton is justifiably appalled, as have been other commentators, Muslim as well as non-Muslim. In such episodes the tender, cat-loving Muhammad is not much in evidence. But when Hazleton struggles to analyse this shameful atrocity, she meanders into well-meaning piffle, seeing the event, bizarrely enough, as the original source of both ‘Muslim anti-Semitism and Jewish Islamophobia’, as though the two were equally well-founded.

For all her waffling, here and elsewhere, Hazleton does provide a good account of Muhammad’s life as it is given in standard Muslim sources; anyone who wants to know how Muslims regard their Prophet will find it both useful and entertaining. Her narrative moves at a pleasing clip. Unfortunately, however, she indulges in two highly irritating quirks. The first is what might be termed the intrusive anachronism. She seems to have a compulsion to interject contemporary references into her account. Thus, when Abd al-Muttalib, the Prophet’s grandfather, finds himself obliged by an ill-considered vow to sacrifice his favourite son, only to be spared the ordeal by a cunning soothsayer, Hazleton remarks, ‘He had no need of a Freud to remind him of the deep connection between Eros and Thanatos, the life force and the death force, and moved instantly to mark his favourite son’s new lease on life by ensuring that it be passed on’ (in other words, he had him married). Sometimes these anachronisms are just plain weird. How is Alfred, Lord Tennyson, connected with the lex talionis (the ‘eye for an eye’ principle)? Had he written of nature, red in ‘tooth and eye’ rather than ‘tooth and claw’, this still would not have worked; Hazleton simply misunderstands his line. Other modern figures pop up, at utterly inopportune moments, from Georgia O’Keeffe to Václav Havel, and always to abrupt and ludicrous effect. The late Edward Said, reverently cited, is also much in evidence. Hazleton, apparently his disciple, indulges in sneers at ‘the enduring power of Orientalist condescension’, all the while blithely ignoring the fact that her very sources, as well as the secondary literature listed in her bibliography, were translated, edited or written by those same Orientalists so snidely maligned by Said.

Her second quirk, a striving after novelistic effects, is even more distracting. Of the orphaned Muhammad we read that there lurked ‘the shadow of loneliness in the corners of his eyes’. Only in the corners? Again, in attempting an explanation of the origins of Muhammad’s monotheism, Hazleton wades boldly into psychobabble, remarking that for ‘an adolescent trying to cement a life from the shards of loss and displacement, the monotheistic idea has to have been immensely powerful’. Hazleton’s breezy prose annoys, too: of an early poet she writes that ‘the rhymes he wrote went viral’ and of gossip around Mecca that ‘the desert grapevine buzzed’; and she speculates that Muhammad may have practised ‘breathing exercises’ (‘only now being rediscovered in the West’) when he meditated on his mountaintop. Sometimes Hazleton’s frothy embroideries wreak havoc on Arabic grammar, on which she clearly has a shaky hold: pilgrims to Mecca, in Muhammad’s time as now, do not exclaim ‘Allah umma’ (‘O God of the Umma’, meaning the universal Muslim community), which is an incorrect locution in any case, but rather, ‘Allahumma’, an archaic vocative form meaning simply ‘O God’.

There seem to be two authorial voices at work in this unexpectedly diverting book. One voice is wary, careful to recapitulate the classical narrative without giving offence, a paragon of circumspection; the other is a bit madcap, perhaps chafing under the yoke of caution, prone to fanciful extrapolations and generous lashings of schmaltz. If I call Lesley Hazleton’s book diverting, that’s only because I’ve never before had the pleasure of chuckling my way through a biography of the Prophet, or indeed of any prophet. Sometimes circumspection comes at too high a price. 

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